Muselmann (pl. Muselmänner)was a slang term used amongst prisoners of German Nazi concentration camps during the II World War to refer to those suffering from a combination of starvation (known also as "hunger disease") and exhaustion, as well as those who were resigned to their impending death. The Muselmann prisoners exhibited severe emaciation and physical weakness, an apathetic listlessness regarding their own fate, and unresponsiveness to their surroundings owing to their barbaric treatment.
Some scholars argue that the term possibly comes from the Muselmanns' inability to stand for any time due to the loss of leg muscle, thus leading them to spend much of their time in a prone position.
Usage of the term in literature
The American psychologist David P. Boder assisted in identifying the term musselman when in 1946 he conducted interviews with camp survivors in Europe. He asked them to describe, spell and pronounce the word for camp inmates so emaciated that they had lost the will to live.
Primo Levi tried to explain the term (he also uses Musselman), in a footnote of If This Is a Man (the commonly found English translation is titled Survival in Auschwitz), his autobiographical account of his time in Auschwitz:
This word ‘Muselmann’, I do not know why, was used by the old ones of the camp to describe the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection.
“Their life is short, but their number is endless: they, the Muselmanner, the drowned form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand…"
- Primo Levi, If This Is a Man
The psychologist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, in his book Man's Search for Meaning, provides the example of a prisoner who decides to use up his last cigarettes (used as currency in the concentration camps) in the evening because he is convinced he won't survive the Appell (roll call assembly) the next morning; his fellow captives derided him as a Muselmann. Frankl compares this to the dehumanized behavior and attitudes of the kapos.
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben defined his key examples of 'bare life', the Muselmann and the patient in an overcoma, in relation to their passivity and inertia. The Muselmann was for him "a being from whom humiliation, horror and fear had so taken away all consciousness and personality as to make him absolutely apathetic", "[m]ute and absolutely alone ... without memory and without grief."
The testimonial of the Polish witness, Adolf Gawalewicz, Refleksje z poczekalni do gazu: ze wspomnień muzułmana ("Reflections in the Gas Chamber's Waiting Room: From the Memoirs of a Muselmann"), published in 1968, incorporates the term in the title of the work.
Canadian Jewish author Eli Pfefferkorn published a novel in 2011 with title The Muselmann at the Water Cooler.
Origin and alternative slang terms
The term spread from Auschwitz-Birkenau to other concentration camps. Its equivalent in the Majdanek concentration camp was Gamel (derived from German gammeln - colloquial for "rotting") and in the Stutthof concentration camp, Krypel (derived from German Krüppel, "cripple"). When prisoners reached this emaciated condition, they were selected by camp doctors and murdered by gas, bullet or various other methods.
In the Soviet Gulag, the term dokhodyaga (Russian: доходяга - goner) was used for someone in a similar situation.
The word Musselman is frequently used in a demeaning manner. For example, in his book Man's Search for Meaning author Victor Frankl berates the attitudes of those who fit his definition of the word Musselman by associating the word with those who are unable to psychologically endure the brutal tactics utilized by the Nazis.
Those prisoners considered Muselmänner and thus unable to work were also very likely to be labelled "excess ballast" inside the concentration camps. In spring 1941 Heinrich Himmler expressed his desire to relieve concentration camps of sick prisoners and those no longer able to work.
Aktion T4, a "euthanasia" programme for mentally ill, disabled and other inmates of hospitals and nursing homes who were deemed unworthy of life, was extended to include the weakest concentration-camp prisoners. Himmler, together with Philipp Bouhler, transferred technology and techniques used in the Aktion T4 programme to the concentration camps, and later to Einsatzgruppen and death camps.
The first concentration-camp victims of this program were gassed by carbon monoxide poisoning and the first known Selektion took place in April 1941 at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. By the summer of 1941 at least 400 prisoners from Sachsenhausen had been "retired". The scheme operated under the Concentration Camps Inspector and the Reichsführer-SS under the name "Sonderbehandlung 14f13". The combination of numbers and letters derived from the SS record-keeping system and consists of the number "14" for the Concentration Camps Inspector, the letter "f" for the German word "deaths" (Todesfälle) and the number "13" for the cause of death, in this case "special treatment", a bureaucratic euphemism for gassing.